Redesigning Army’s Approach to Learning

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As the Australian Army reconceptualises the way in which it can ensure dominance on the battlefield, it must be acknowledged that, noting the size and budget of the Army, relying on mass or technical overmatch is not realistic. Human performance thus remains an arena in which the Army may be able to pursue a decisive advantage. Essential to this is gaining the cognitive edge, of which a key facilitator is optimising Army learning processes. Historically, the Army has ‘boxed’ learning as a function of its schools and, at best, delegated collective training as a unit function; however, as the Army continues to develop into the 21stCentury, ongoing and continually-evolving learning procedures must underpin its preparation for all eventualities.

The fundamental motivator for re-prioritising learning is the complexity inherent in future conflicts, where warfare will be characterised by advanced adversaries and increasingly intelligent technology. Creating a learning mindset affords a greater chance the Army will be adaptable and agile enough to defeat future (and currently unknown) threats and able to anticipate the changes required for continued success.

The Army has been, and remains, very effective at training, instructing, and generating a defined product; this is not, however, mirrored in the Army’s approach to education, which is more nebulous in application. Decisions of the last decade have set Army’s schools on an unintended pathway: one focussed on assessment rather than learning; competency rather than changed behaviour; and instructor-centric teaching rather than participant-driven learning. This has moved the institution further away from delivering a warrior ready for the intellectual challenges of future combat.

Individual learning

The Army’s recent prioritisation of knowledge is supported by the Ryan Review’s pillars of professional mastery[1]. Brigadier Ryan’s examination of Army’s education, training, and doctrine needs for the future provides a six-pillared framework for achieving professional mastery: physical mastery; technical and tactical mastery; psychological and cognitive mastery; mastery of the context of military history; mastery of operational art; and mastery of strategic thinking.

This comprehensive framework stipulates what personnel need to know—but does not prioritise how they need to think and then actArmy’s learning focus needs to be on developing the required cognitive skills and the acquisition of knowledge which ultimately contributes to changing behaviour[2]. Evidence suggests that some of the most important attributes officers will need in future conflict are soft skills like wisdom, adaptability, and creativity overlaid with sound character (and well-practised tactical acumen)[3].  It is also insufficient to designate developing the cognitive edge as isolated to the conduct of PME, which is all too often defined as an activity conducted in the mess on a Thursday or Friday afternoon.

Figure 1 articulates the intellectual skills required to contribute to land capability. Thus, in developing creativity, system thinking, intuition, and emotional intelligence and tenacity, commanders and schools can overlay these skills onto Ryan’s pillars of intellectual knowledge and specific technical skills to develop a robust, three-pronged program of learning.

Intellect vs Wisdom

At times, Army lionises and isolates intellect as its predominant focus within the wider realm of cognitive skills—for instance, as a determinant in PARs. Yet such a paradigm fails to comprehend the true nature of intelligence and its role in reasoning. Intellect is perhaps better understood as a ‘fixed’  attribute, but plays a central role in the development of a higher order construct – wisdom. Rather than limiting an assessment of cognitive skills to an individual’s inherent intelligence, a well-rounded construct must emphasise the importance of wisdom. Within such a construct, experience, maturation, and perspective are all key drivers that support decision-making—yet the importance of such facets is often poorly articulated. Defining them as drivers of wisdom (as shown in Figure 2), enables greater focus on how each aspect is developed or refined.

Experience, for instance, is often considered by career management in PAC processes, but the individual’s capacity to self-generate experience is limited, and often reliant on external factors beyond individual control. Conversely, perspective is primarily precipitated by the individual, but can be shaped by the organisation through activities such as AARs, mentoring, or debriefs. Maturation is less easily driven by the organisation, typically relying on the progression of time for actualisation; however, like perspective, it may potentially be facilitated by activities that focus on emotional intelligence.

Self-reflection is inherent in the wisdom model above, and the pillar of emotional intelligence. It’s a building block of the Army as a learning organisation—individuals learn best when they can make their own assessment of their performance and areas for improvement. The soft skill development of individuals, including self-reflection, can be well supported when an organisation is robust enough to actively use coaching and mentoring[4].

Team learning

Despite its aspiration to be so, Army is not currently a ‘learning organisation’[5]. Team learning should be a product of a deliberate planning process that seeks to apply both a science and an art to optimise a unit’s available time. Current exercise design, training program development and activity outcomes are often one-dimensional, lacking in creativity, and more aligned to conducting rehearsals of particular skills[6]. While METLs and other tools fill an organisational purpose, they also prove restrictive when strictly partnered with the resource allocation process. Moreover, this method encourages a ‘check list’ approach to outcomes, where the most important aspect is the achievement of the current task to allow progression to the next. This comes at the expense of developing the analysis, decision-making, processes, and interactions needed to achieve future tasks where different circumstances have the potential to unhinge purely rehearsed skills.

Army’s current approach to training encourages conservative behaviour and prioritises mission success within the training environment. This jeopardises success in potential future combat. Learning science routinely acknowledges the value of failure in promoting long-lasting learning, provided failure is combined with the readiness of the organisation and the individual to reflect on poor performance and thus reveal internal weaknesses. Allowing teams the opportunity to fail, provides the opportunity for creativity and experimentation[7]. Removing the constraint of a templated approach, allowing teams to fail forces personnel to more deeply assess a problem, employ trial and error, and learn from those around them[8]. Conversely, an attitude that pivots on avoiding failure at all costs leads to the poor application of mission command because the organisation is incapable of accepting risk or relying on trust—an outcome reflected in the Army’s current attitudes towards learning.

Unit Programming

A unit’s program of activities needs to be more than just a training program. For every activity conducted there must also be consideration of what cognitive skills are being enhanced. The development of such a program is not easy, particularly noting that growing cognitive skills often needs a grasp of complex educative theories. There will be no template that an OC can apply in order to develop these skills; rather, such a program requires the thorough assessment of specific areas of weakness, and a creative approach to implementing ways to address the relevant deficits. The result will be a multi-layered activity where cognitive skills and tactical tasks are developed simultaneously. Such shift in focus will inevitably be a challenge to some personnel and units. Yet in pursuing this methodology, leaders and their teams will be better versed in problem-solving and, with expanded and shared mental models, will enhance performance and adaptability (and thus out perform their adversary on the battlefield)[9].

Valuing Time

Whilst the Army is becoming increasingly adept at using the language of risk to articulate issues up the chain of command, it is still not sophisticated enough in valuing time. Risk language may identify to a commander that command- or situation-imposed requirements carry inherent risk to other activities; however, Army continues to burden units and individuals with poorly-considered imposts on their time. An emphasis on learning brings with it an opportunity to help Army redefine how priorities are set, from unit to individual level. Is a new training or governance requirement an effective use of time compared with the things it will displace? Does it support Army’s long term goals and priorities? A learning and cognitive skills-based approach allows Army to be confident that their personnel are genuinely being prepared for future conflict and thus step back from reactive, narrow activities.


The promotion of learning as one of Army’s organisational priorities cannot be seen simply as the latest trend that will soon be forgotten, or as something that detracts from combat effectiveness. Rather, it is an approach that establishes the most effective fighting force, ready to adapt to future conflict. It focuses on ensuring all levels of the organisation are making decisions are based on the most effective analysis. Inherent in this, historical training methods still apply: robust and challenging activities, repetitive drills, and basic skills remain relevant. Rather than detracting from these facets of training, an increased focus on cognitive skills and learning ensures that time available for training is balanced appropriately and tailored to the uncertain nature of future combat. The cultural change required to implement a focus on learning and cognitive skills also requires the Army to be capable of introspective analysis of the ways it currently rewards narrow, training-focused outcomes. To continue with the Army’s current model of training, education and learning is to potentially risk conceding the cognitive edge to future adversaries.

About the author

MAJ Sally Graham is currently posted to HQFORCOMD, within the G5 Branch. She is a RACT Officer with a range of operational experience in Afghanistan, East Timor and Indonesia. She has a Masters in HR Management and a Masters in International and Community Development.


[1]HQFORCOMD (2016), The Ryan Review – A Study of Army’s Education, Training and Doctrine Needs for the Future

[2]King, S. (2011), Changing the “ways” of the Institutional Army’s Leader Development Strategy, Strategy Research Project

[3]Jenkins, A. (2016), Transforming Unit Training with the Science of Learning, Military Review, Vol 96, Iss 6, pp 99-105

[4]Mentor: Guides and stimulates an individual’s reflection and actions for improved personal and professional outcomes. Coach: A person who trains, tutors or prepares an individual for targeted improvement to skills and performance.(Defence People Group – Mentoring in Defence Guidebook)

[5]Drobnjack, M., Stothard, C., S., Watkins, K. & McDowall, D. (2013), Learning, trust and change within the Australian Army: the development of the Army Learning Organization Questionnaire (ALOQ), Handbook of Research on the Learning Organization: Adaption and Context, Edward Elgar Publishing, 159-178 and Talbot, S. (2013), Learning to add value: Fostering cultures of effective learning in the Australian Army, Australian Army Journal, Vol x, No 3, pp 158-170

[6]The concept of much of a military’s training being a rehearsal of skills is explored by Jenkins A., (2016), Transforming unit training with the science of learning, Military Review, Vol 96 Iss 6, pp99-105

[7]Smith S., (2015), Epic Fails: Reconceptualising failure as a catalyst for developing creative persistence within teaching and learning experiences, Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 23(3), 329-355

[8]Kouzes, J.M. and Posner, B.Z. (1995) in Brown, L., Posner, B., (2001) Exploring the relationship between learning and leadership, Leadership and Organisation Development Journal, Vol 22, Iss 6, pp274-280

[9]Cannon-Bowers, J. A., Salas, E., & Converse, S. A. (1993) Shared mental models in expert decision making teams in Castellan, N.J. Jr. (Ed.), Current Issues in Individual and Group Decision Making (pp. 221-246).

Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.